To create a realistic matte painting, or any artwork for that matter, it is important to understand the properties of light, atmospherics, color and perspective.  Proper perspective and use of light can bring out the true scale and depth to any image, while using the wrong lighting or perspective can make the artwork feel pasted together, or make it seem as though it is a miniature model instead of a realistically scaled image.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to take a concept, develop it using linear perspective, then add in value and color perspectives, and then apply photographic references to achieve a realistic matte painting.  You’ll then learn how to apply adjustments to achieve realistic scale, and understand the properties of light and atmospherics for realism.  Lastly, you’ll learn some great compositional techniques.

Let’s get started.

Tools used:

  • Photoshop

Final Image Preview:

Hi everyone!

My name is Stas Lobachev and in this tutorial, I’m going to show you how I use illustration and painting techniques for my matte paintings.

Step 1: Idea and Concept Development

I immediately want to note that the power of digital art (as any art) – comes from the content and in perfect form.

So, in the first place was the idea.  The idea for this matte painting was to create a monumental, epic landscape with elements of medieval architecture, illuminated by the rising morning sun, with a misty, magical and somewhat mysterious feeling.   Imagination is the best way to develop creativity in the mind for artists, and the ability to visualize and to put forms of fantasy into a visible image is the first foundation of digital painting.  The development of a live concept is the main objective in all our work.  Also, a significant role in creative work is played by the following: a preliminary study of paintings of old and modern masters, watching movies, reading literature and etc.

Step 2: Sketch Work

Normally, before starting work on the main picture, I make sketches, draw details, play with composition, enter new elements, think about color and how the piece will fit together.  In this case, the base image has been formed in my head and I promptly created a simple line drawing.

Linear perspective is based on the visible variation of the different remote objects.  The rules are represented by large objects near, far objects – small.

After defining the linear perspective, it was important to define the value and color perspectives.  With the way that light travels to the viewers eye, and the way atmospherics affect this, distant objects tend to have less contrast and saturation between their tones.  So, the next step. I define the difference in values and tones for the sketch.

And enter the approximate color, to help guide color corrections and build a sense of feel for the image.

First and foremost, I want to note that the perception of big space and proper scale is in the providing of strong light. Therefore, in the images of the distant perspectives, artists usually concentrate most rich light on distant areas, because this leads the viewer’s attention to the depth and gives the opportunity to experience the great distance of the midground and background areas of the image from the foreground.


Any panoramic landscape is different magnitude of field.  Panoramas usually have great size and elongated proportions and require very strong visual techniques.  Panorama in its scope and general appearance is always monumental and epic for the most part.

Step 3: Working with References

Next step. I begin to pick up refs for foreground and middleground areas, like what you see below.

Usually I select the ref (Ctrl+ A), copy it (Ctrl +C) and paste (Ctrl+ V) into the main image. After that I use Eraser Tool (E) or Lasso tool (L) and delete unnecessary parts.  If you’re a beginner or your concept is not fully established, you can use layer masks, so that the original reference remains unchanged.  Then, if you need to refine later, you can alter the mask easily.

Then, using Levels (Ctrl+L), Curves (Ctrl+M) and Color Balance (Ctrl+B), try to achieve the correct proportion of color and tone.  Usually it’s easier to focus on one, then the other, so you can add an adjustment layer for the hue/saturation and remove the color completely by desaturating it, that way you can focus on the tone and correct it using levels and curves.  Then, once you have that matching the area you’re working in, you can delete the adjustment layer to bring back the color, and then use the color balance to bring out the proper color.

Now I need a ref for the central hill, so checking around on and CGTextures, I chose the following reference.

I insert the ref (Ctrl+V) into the picture, carefully cut out and playing with Hue/Saturation (Ctrl+U) and Color Balance (Ctrl+B).

I use a large soft brush in Color mode to add color and use brush in Multiply mode to paint shadows.  By establishing the color and lighting early on, it’s easier to make these adjustments to get the proper feel.

Next, I add a New Layer (Shift+Ctrl+N) and draw by small brush in Normal Mode and also copying the color from the neighboring areas.  Also, I use New Adjustment Layer and play with Hue/Saturation (Ctrl+U) and Color Balance (Ctrl+B).
I add in the left rock on the foreground, which helps establish a strong composition and frame while also building up the perspective, since the foreground rocks are big and dark.

Turning to distant area, the next step is to add mountains from different images.

For the sky I chose this ref:

Insert it and play with Free Transform (Ctrl+T) to get it to sit properly.  In this case I tilted the sky a bit so the clouds seem to fit in with the mountains and create a sort of sweeping effect down the slopes.

Adding architecture at the main hill is the next step, and a major part of this composition.   I create a new layer, paint new buildings and a bridge.  You can use either photographic references, 3D models, or painted by hand depending on what suits your needs.  It is important to know that the focus of the composition (in this case, the center) must be the most detailed and rich with content, the most rich in color and more importantly, have the greatest cognitive meaning.

Direct sunlight during the day successively changes its color: in the morning differs pink, light orange and yellow colors; afternoon reaches a dazzling white or a bright-golden hue, in the evening becoming saturated yellow, orange and red tones. Under these conditions, colors of distant objects do not have a blue hue, but they would have yellow and approximate red tones. Accordingly, the architecture at this time of the day is bright-orange, pink, yellow.

After that I continue to work with plans and add the fog on foreground and background, working with the sky and aerial perspective.   The law of aerial perspective is – that the farther the object and immersing it in the environment, the greater the change of the external features of this object. Outlines of objects under the influence of air lose sharpness and clarity, becoming soft and vague.  As the concentration of air increases, increasing its vapor saturation, dust or smoke is clouding the air faster and induces more noticeable change in shapes.  On a foggy day, even at a small distance it is difficult to distinguish individual objects. In a dusty or smoky air, clear borders of shapes disappear.

In more transparent clear air, shapes are more visible and change less. For example, alpine air affects the sharp outlines of distant mountains, because of what the mountains are often difficult to visually determine distance.  These laws determine and govern the aerial perspective for outlines of objects.  The object with sharp outlines are perceived near; figure with soft outlines are perceived distant.

So, for the fog, I take some references with the fog, increase, and paint in several layers. I actively use the eraser tool with varying degrees of transparency.  I reduce the references to the desired size, and am constantly playing with shapes and color, as well as transparency.

I focus the fog with cold color and color saturation on the foreground.  In the foreground the important role played by their own, or rather, almost its own color, in distant plans – due color. The foreground I process the dark tones, deep shadows, dark and edgy outline, distant plans I paint bright with soft shadows, light and delicate contour.

Next, I will be focusing on adding waterfalls, the fence, branch with leaves, and the  monument with a knight, as well as finishing the sky. I use a reference with waterfall (waterfalls help add a fantasy feel to the image, if you think about Rivendell or Lothlorien from Lord of the Rings), then I add new layer and paint in Normal Mode.  Also I paint a water-dust or vapor, which rises up from the falling stream of water.  I draw the sky on several layers, using big soft brushes in Normal Mode and Color Mode.   We know that the bright objects in the distant plans lose some of their brightness, and in the dispersion of light causes a warm tone.  Highlights on the clouds of the foreground looks dazzlingly white, with increasing distance yellow-orange, on the horizon – just pink.

Step 4: Adjustments with Light and Color

Now I make some adjustments to the light and color. Coloration in nature depends on three factors: from the light environment, from the color of objects and from the properties of our vision. As we know, the light of sunrise paints the sky from the east with warm tones.  This is because the low standing of the rising sun light passes through the most powerful layer of the atmosphere and the predominance of red and yellow rays of light reach our view. At the same time, the western part of the sky reflected to us the blue rays are scattered in the air, will be painted in blue color. The light of the sun in the morning is a yellowish-pinkish hue, in the daytime is golden; and in the evening is orange and sometimes red.  In a bright sunny afternoon the most saturated color in the shade, morning or afternoon of color saturation may be uniform. At the end of the day, as well as the early morning the most saturated color will be highlights.

Well, continuing to work with foreground, middleground and background, I increase the difference of plans from dark to lighter.  Construction of distant objects from near dark to light far is based on the fact that all subjects in the distance enveloped illuminated air and become lighter. Light-and-dark contrast sharplyin the foreground, gradually softened and in the big distance coalesce into the one common tone. The sharper the light in the image – the more the subject comes to the fore.   With softer contrast the image is more went off.  Because the distant objects’ light-and-dark contrast is dissolved in the air, objects at a distance lose volume, depth and acquire silhouette lineaments. Texture and small details are absorbed concealed by the layer of air.  Distant subjects become more generalized principles. Texture of the material, tactile sensation of shape , its apparent massiveness give way to a generalized illusory and flat silhouette. In the image of the morning landscape that visible in the east this objects of foreground must do more darker, the objects of distant plans more stronger and very bright on the horizon.

You’ll notice that I’m repeating the concepts several times in different ways.  This is because the understanding of atmospheric, linear and value perspectives are crucial to establishing a realistic feel, but they can often be deceivingly hard to achieve.  With the wrong perspective, the mountains in the background could seem like mini-models, or the objects could feel pasted together instead of a coherent image.

Step 5: Detailing and Generalization

The final stage can be reduced to two types of painting work: the detailing and generalization. Detailing for the most part is on the principal focus of image, which focuses the audience’s attention, because these places have the basic cognitive significance, and establishing significance of these objects leads to a more profound development; secondary places on the image must be more generalization.

An important generalization technique is reduction of light-and-dark; total reduction of luminance patterns from the center to the periphery, from background to foreground, from top to bottom, from light to dark. This technique can distinguish light in that part of the picture where it should be the most vivid and extinguish it in the other parts. The gradual eviction of lightness to the shadow is true effect of lighting.  It works for compositional reasons, when you want to select the main figure or the main structure.

Detailing is the most technically difficult stage. It requires clarity of figurative representation, the highest accuracy in applying color and pointed characteristics of the object. Detail must be painted fresh, firmly and with conviction, only if it contributes to the expressiveness of the image. When details are painted uncertain and sluggish, doing all the work will feel tortured and lifeless.  However, detailing offers a chance to show the technical virtuosity of master and the knowledge and professional culture of the artist.

In dark areas I draw the minor part of the composition, I do more lighting for significant subjects, revealing the compositional center of the picture, the main buildings and etc. Depending on where the light is concentrated – on the foreground, on the middleground or on the background, in that places I draw the attention of the viewer, this is more than just working on and painting in the highest bright colors, it becomes a focus of the composition.

This method has its aesthetic features. It brings an exhilarating variety in the lighting perspective; some places immersed in deep shadow, the other slightly covered by her veil of light, shadow plans alternated with light and very bright.  All subjects can be brought in the most diverse state of illumination.  Again, this helps bring out the fantasy feel to the artwork.

Each subject can be given very different picturesque forms that in the compositional unity of the artwork will be diverse and painterly beauty, beautiful in whole of the grandious picture. Some elements of these artworks have their own coloration characteristics.  The dark, shadowy places become interesting with deep saturated colors, concise silhouettes, strong color and by the generalized tone of deep and transparent shadows.  The elements with average luminance become covered with a light shade of paint reach maximum intensity, subjects acquire the clarity of outline, delicacy of the figure, the effect of harmonic color combinations.

Against the backdrop of perspective, elements with weak and medium-light illumination, especially nice the part of image are illuminated by direct sunlight, with a halo of dazzling illuminated parts of the landscape and buildings, with a rich chiaroscuro, with clarity, reaching full three-dimensional, with vibrant and bright colors, plenty of bright reflections, drop shadows, highlights, with nuanced color and light-and-dark relations.

Especially effective are the spectacular lighted areas in the middle zone of the composition, where they are surrounded by shady plans and better identify the effect of contrast; in addition, they take in full brightness of colorful materials middlegrounds are sufficiently far into the depths of the image, made all the more brightly lit, because they would like considered through a thick layer of air.

So, this is a final result:

Thanks for reading.

Stas Lobachev.